by Charles Dear
Imagine that your closest relative has just passed away. What do you do? What should you feel? The song “Helena” by American scene band My Chemical Romance is lead singer Gerard Way’s tribute to his late grandmother, and is a perfect encapsulation of all the raw feelings that arise in mourning. This song is part of the album Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, which is a concept album about two lovers who die. One of them runs into the devil after death, who promises that the two can be together again if he receives the souls of 1,000 evil men. Now, this song does not assume the same vengeful tone as the rest of the album, and deals in pure fact rather than Way’s creation. It is the opening track on the album. I think Way did that strategically, putting his painful experiences with death as a lead-off.
As much as this album works as a whole, I feel that “Helena” stands out. Way describes the song this way, “It’s about why I wasn’t around for this woman who was so special to me, why I wasn’t there for the last year of her life…an angry open letter to myself.” He was also a heavy drinker during this period. The best representation of this mentality is in the chorus. It is a simple four-liner: (“What’s the worst thing I can say/Things are better if I stay/So long and goodnight/So long and goodnight”). Anyway, it is evident that Way is caught between staying around and moving on in the wake of his grandmother’s death. He chooses the latter because he can’t say anything, and dislikes himself for it. I would like to expand on the “So long and goodnight” line on its own as well. It is in parentheticals in some versions of the song. As such, I would contend it is its most important line. Humans do not say “So long and goodnight” to each other. Each phrase on its own, yes, but together it seems too ominous and serves to illustrate the damning finality of death.
The pre-chorus also touches on Way’s loathing. It runs thusly: (“And what’s the worst you take/from every heart you break?/And like the blade you stain/Well I’ve been holding on tonight”). Way’s drinking problem is upsetting his family. Simultaneously, he has just been holding on to his life and sanity in the wake of such a tragedy. Since the format of the song is a letter to himself, the “you” and “I” in the pre-chorus refer to the same person.
I love how touching and poignant this song is. It is very hard to cope with the death of a loved one, but Gerard Way does just that in this song, with a delivery that is emotional but not effusive.